Great North Museum: Hancock seeks to repatriate Benin bronze - Museums Association

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Great North Museum: Hancock seeks to repatriate Benin bronze

Stakeholders agree to take proactive approach to returning brass stave
Benin Bronzes Repatriation
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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The brass stave was confirmed to have been forcibly removed from Benin City during the punitive expedition of 1897
The brass stave was confirmed to have been forcibly removed from Benin City during the punitive expedition of 1897 Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

The Great North Museum: Hancock is seeking to repatriate a Benin bronze in its ethnography collection to Nigeria.

The Newcastle museum recently established that the item, a brass stave with bird finial, was taken from Benin City by British forces during the punitive expedition of 1897. The artefact is thought to be a type of musical instrument that would have been struck with a metal rod during ceremonies.

The stave was acquired in 1951 in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum's dispersal of non-medical items, and incorporated into the collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Newcastle University has overall responsibility for stewardship of the society's collections, which are managed on its behalf by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam).

Given the item’s forceful removal from Benin City, Twam, which oversees the Great North Museum, advised stakeholders to consider a proactive repatriation of the bronze to Nigeria, to which they unanimously agreed. The decision was informed by advice from the University of Aberdeen, which became the first UK institution to hand back a Benin bronze in October last year.

The Great North Museum has contacted Nigerian authorities about repatriating the stave.

Twam director Keith Merrin said: “We have been researching the unclear history of the brass stave in the Great North Museum: Hancock and now know for certain that it was taken violently during the punitive expedition of 1897.

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“It is right to return the stave to Nigeria. Repatriation can be a powerful cultural, spiritual and symbolic act which recognises the wrongs of the past and restores some sense of justice.”  

Vee Pollock, dean of culture and the creative arts at Newcastle University said: “We have no hesitation in returning the ceremonial stave, one of the so-called Benin bronzes.

“As well as an important cultural artefact for the people of Benin, this brass stave is also a symbol of historic injustice and extreme violence.

“A museum, through what it displays, how it relates to its audiences and what it does, should be a place of learning, and we hope that through this process we can work with partners in Nigeria and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments to facilitate better understanding and enhanced cooperation.”

She added: “We are also grateful to colleagues at Aberdeen University for their invaluable advice which has informed our proactive approach.”

A number of other museums worldwide, including Germany’s Humboldt Forum, are planning to repatriate some or all of their Benin bronze holdings; others, such as the British Museum, have agreed to a programme of loans on rotation.

A new venue, the Edo Museum of West Africa Art, is being built in Benin City to house repatriated bronzes.

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